Jan Tregelles MencapLearning disability charity Mencap has welcomed an independent report that has called for major changes in the way that the NHS handles complaints.

The report, commissioned after failings at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust were detailed in the Francis Report earlier this year, was chaired by Ann Clywd MP and professor Tricia Hart, chief executive of South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

It decried a “decade of failure” to reform the way in which complaints are handled, and demanded urgent action. To ensure there is real change, the review has secured undertakings from key health organisations to ensure that action will be taken within the next year.

The three main drivers for change will be:
• Consumer power – Consumer and patient bodies have agreed to work together locally and nationally to oversee and monitor implementation of the recommendations
• Championing complaints reform – Mike Richards, chief inspector of hospitals, is making complaints a central part of Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspections of hospitals. He will develop standards for the handling of complaints by NHS organisations, ensure inspectors’ judgements are fully informed by what people say about the quality of care in a hospital, and publish his findings on complaints across hospitals in a year’s time
• Concrete commitments from major NHS players – 12 organisations including the Royal College of Nursing, Health Education England, the General Medical Council,

New guidance on complaints handling
Monitor, CQC and NHS England have together signed up to nearly 30 actions to help improve the complaints culture across the NHS, for example, new guidance for nurses and reviewing training and education on complaints handling.

“When I made public the circumstances of my own husband’s death last year, I was shocked by the deluge of correspondence from people whose experience of hospitals was heart-breaking,” said Clywd. “It made me determined to do my best to get change in the system.

“We have given patients and their families a voice in this report, and their message to the NHS on complaints is clear. The days of delay, deny, and defend must end, and hospitals must become open, learning organisations. Our proposals put patients firmly into the driving seat at every level as never before, and we now expect to see progress within 12 months’ time.”

Hart added: “I’ve heard first-hand how the NHS has let people down, and some of the stories I’ve heard have been the most harrowing of my career.

“We need a fundamental change in culture and we need transparency so that when things go wrong improvements are made to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But most of all we need action – and that is what sets [this] report apart. Leaders from across the NHS have signed up to concrete actions to start to do better on complaints.

“The end goal has to be that the NHS provides better, safer, kinder care so that fewer patients feel like they want to complain. Listening to and acting on complaints now is essential to making that a reality.”

Slow, bureaucratic and defensive
Janine Tregelles (pictured), chief executive of Mencap, said: "Since 2007 we have worked with close to 100 families who have lost loved ones with a learning disability, supporting them to seek justice through the NHS complaints process, the inquest system and professional regulatory bodies, like the GMC [General Medical Council].

Recent research has shown that 1,200 people with a learning disability die avoidably within the health service every year. "Families have found the complaints process slow, bureaucratic and defensive. Many have been bereaved in traumatic circumstances, yet have waited years to reach some form of justice for their loved one. This culture of delay and defensiveness means the NHS has been failing to learn lessons and take the steps needed to prevent further avoidable deaths and serious incidents.

"Ann Clwyd's review makes powerful and much needed recommendations for change, which we welcome. Families have waited too long for change, we now need to see strong government leadership on delivering these changes, so that we achieve a high quality independent complaints process, with enforceable standards, and support on hand for patients and families to make their concerns known."